Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

A Story of Compassion with Eva Benitez and her children

I hate goodbyes, conclusions of books, and the final bites of a perfect meal. Every time I reach an ending of something beautiful, my heart aches just a bit; I want it to continue. Admitting that farewells are part of life—friends move away, new jobs begin, and even the best stories have a beginning and an end—is often painful and discouraging.

In an interview with Eva Benitez about her work with Compassion International, she taught me the importance of recognizing God’s timing and the close of another chapter He’s authoring. We talked about her role in Compassion, who she’s met, and what she’s learned.

Our conversation begins around Compassion International, an organization that seeks to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. Compassion operates by carefully coming alongside children in countries all across the globe to offer them physical, social, economic, and spiritual care together, through the power of Jesus. I ask Eva what she does:

“I’ve been a volunteer for Compassion since the early 2000s. I sponsored a child with Compassion probably around 1995… the first couple of sponsored kids I was given didn’t stick with the program, but the third child I got—her name was Bulah— was from India and she’s the one God used to really show me what Compassion was doing for her.

I wasn’t really in any way an engaged sponsor but I would read her letters and realize how much she was getting out of the program. And it really started to make me realize that what I was doing—which was very small—was just enormous in her life. Through that…I decided to become [ ] an Advocate for Compassion.

For those of you who’ve been at Grace since before the pandemic, you may remember seeing Eva at the front of service once a year, serving as an advocate for Compassion Sunday, sharing her stories with the children she’s been in relationship with and making a call for more of us to join Compassion International’s vision. As we talked a couple Sundays ago, she gave me greater insight into why she is so passionate about getting more of us on board with Compassion, beginning with her kids. I asked her how many she’s sponsored, to which she says, “I’ve lost count. It’s probably something like 30 [kids.]”

Not only has she sponsored these kids, she’s also gotten to meet several over the course of the past twenty years. In 2005, she went to India to Bulah and also went to Brazil to meet another child; both visits came out of tours for sponsors that Compassion typically runs in various countries during the year.

Eva tells e of her surprise: “When I met [Bulah] she said, ‘I have an interview for college tomorrow.’ And I was floored because I did not know she was even thinking about that or would have any opportunity like that. But she did get into a nursing school—a Christian nursing school [ ] founded by missionaries—and so she ended up getting a four year nursing degree after that. She just had so many opportunities that she never would have had without this program.”

Compassion International’s programs aim for partnerships, not top-down savior help. They “work through local churches that are already engaged in the community, which is [critical] because the local church understands the local needs and even [ ] understands the local families…who’s most in need.”

When you choose to sponsor a child, that money goes to a national organization tied to Compassion, ensuring that the money goes where it’s supposed to, while the local church is responsible for running the center the children attend. Some centers, Eva says, are large buildings that have grown over the course of twenty years, sophisticated and rooted. Others are smaller: one room, open air structures. “It’s anything—whatever the church has, they work with it.”

Within these churches are child sponsorship programs that cover infancy to age 22.These holistic child development programs start with Survival, which is for 0-1 year olds. Eva says that it is within these sponsorship programs that “you have a relationship with that child, they encourage you to pray for that child, to write and encourage them through letters and build a long-term relationship.

If for some reason you had to stop—if somebody’s like, ‘I’m not sure I can commit for 20 years,’—I would say, do it anyway.” Compassion will still try their best to find a new sponsor for the child.

The programs are incredibly foundational to the kids’ development into adulthood. “In Brazil, for example, schools run half day so they’ll go to school for four hours and then they’ll come after school. They’ll get their lunch, homework help, and a program in the afternoon. Which is really super important because mom and dad are out trying to work usually. And that’s something I’ve really learned: depending on the situation, the parents may have to leave the kids relatively unsupervised, or even—”

Here, Eva adds in a personal story from a child she knows now: “[A girl] told me stories, ‘They locked me in the house and went to work but then I snuck out in the market and was stealing food.’ At five…That’s so dangerous.”

Continuing, Eva asserts, “Having a long term relationship with an encouraging adult is actually really good for these kids. There’s studies that compare just getting the benefits versus getting the benefits and having a relationship— the child gets better outcomes in relationship.”

Eva’s commitment to long-term relationships has been on display in other areas of her own life. “I am a foster parent to three kids; well, they’re young adults now. My girls have moved out but I still have a 20-year-old son and he’s originally from the Congo and then they fled the Congo and went to Uganda and lived in Katwe…which is a slum in Uganda, and that’s where my kids spent many years of their lives.

Dealing with the refugee kids here just makes me realize how much more kids in [Compassion] areas [are] really struggling with. It’s become [truly] real to me through involvement with refugees. [Practical and emotional support needs…] It makes more sense to me now that I’ve met people.” Intimate relationship with hurting kids has opened Eva’s eyes to the levels of struggle she has agreed to walk into.

While Compassion International doesn’t have a foster program, Eva’s heart for children remains the same. Such a heart explains her dual involvement in both Compassion and fostering, which she has done for seven years: “[Fostering] wasn’t related to Compassion but it was related to the same kind of callings in my life. I’ve always had a strong sense of calling to kids and international poverty and international justice.”

I asked Eva more about how she keeps up relationship with the kids she sponsors. The primary channel for long distance relationship-building between sponsor and child is through letter-writing. She learned about their daily lives through the letters.

“I struggle with letter writing like, what do you do? But in the end, the most helpful things[is] I think encouraging them [through] Scriptures…Especially the kids who are steeped in [faith], talking about my experiences with God, God’s faithfulness, that God will take care of us that God has a plan for their life—those kinds of things are encouragements. Celebrating their successes. Or giving them encouragement when, ‘Oh yeah, they didn’t pass their test or whatever,’ because a lot of times the people in their lives don’t understand or don’t have time [ ] to encourage them or listen to them emotionally.”

Eva has learned a lot about hardship. “When you’re dealing with a poverty environment, a third world environment, there’s a lot of trauma that goes on in those environments. And unfortunately if you’re a kid with a parent who has grown up with trauma, often there’s a lot of emotional stuff that’s not working right, and a lot of stuff that’s not working right in the family…There are kids [ ] who have wonderful caring parents and there are kids in the Compassion program who have abusive parents or parents who just emotionally are unable to connect because of what’s happened in their lives.”

Poverty environments juxtaposed against the causal wealth often seen in Silicon Valley create stark comparisons. As Eva points out, “The countries, the places [Compassion families] work in, are places where $38 a month can make an impact. And when you think about how wealthy we are in Silicon Valley, we have immense leverage when you take that and move that to a new area.” $38 gives Eva pause as it has become “one of the things I sometimes measure when I think about spending—how many months of sponsorship support would this be and what does that mean there versus what I want…

We have been blessed with such abundance here. And the weird things is I know an awful lot of whiny people in Silicon Valley who are like, ‘Why don’t I have this too?’…Compassion has definitely been one of the things that’s helped me keep grounded and [helps me] remember to count thanks: for a roof over my head, food on my table, and a peaceful place to live…”

Eva is steeped in understanding and love for these kids overseas and in her own home. Such love has come from years spent investing in them financially, relationally, spiritually, and physically. I asked her what happens over time. Tears slipped beneath our masks as she described the myriad ways her kids often go.

“I’ve had kids who’ve gone [ ] to college, or gotten vocational training and completed. The saddest to me is two who completed [schooling] but they just hit reality. I had one who finished and wanted to go to college and got married off in a forced marriage instead. But you know, even there, she was able to complete high school. When the kids are in the program and somebody is paying the bills, if you will, for her—it enables the parents to delay marrying off their kids.

So okay, she ended up in a forced marriage but she was already 20 or 21: she didn’t end up in a forced marriage at 15. Sometimes you gotta take what God did make it possible for you to do, even if she still ended up in what is an unfortunate situation, [one] that’s a reality for a lot of people.”

Eva continues. “God calls you to a certain place for a while and at a certain point, He calls you to something else. And you gotta say, ‘This is how long I’ve been called to be in this ministry, this life,’ and I have to accept [it]…

Michael Card has this song where he talks about life as a tapestry and the threads of the tapestry. And it’s like my ministry to somebody, my ministry to my Compassion child, is a thread in their life. And I can’t see the whole tapestry that God is building but I know God’s building that tapestry. So I need to accept that God’s in charge of the tapestry. If He calls me to lay this thread in it, then I need to do that thread and I need to trust that when that thread ends, my role is done but God carries on that tapestry. And so you know, you sponsor another kid and you go on, or whatever it is you feel you’re called to at that point. But you can’t see the whole picture but maybe, maybe when we get to heaven we’ll get to see what the whole picture that God is building in that tapestry.

            When you sponsor a child, you don’t know their parents might decide to move away and you get a letter saying, ‘Your child moved away, they’re no longer in the program,’ [or] you may have that child till they’re 22 and they may write you a final letter saying, ‘Hey, this is my plan for my future.’ You don’t know where it’s going to go but God’s in charge.”

Such faith in the tapestry God is weaving takes trust. When I asked Eva about this, she says, “I like to hang onto things and I like stability but God says, ‘I called you here; at this point it’s not your problem, go to the next thing.’”

One of my favorite feelings is the feeling of looking forward: what’s next and to come, what’s promised and believed in. As Eva reveals, moving on as chapters close does not mean forgetting. Rather, moving on as God stays present is the promise that God’s story is only going to get better.

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.” —Matthew 18: 2-5

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